Momentum and luck are often tough to beat when they are on the side of Matt Hirschman and team. That was the case for the second straight Sunday on the Race of Champions Asphalt Tour. The Northampton, Pennsylvania driver came from the back to the front shortly after halfway and then after a routine pit stop he took the lead for good again shortly after the three-quarter mark in the 65th Annual Race of Champions 200.
It was Hirschman’s third victory in the prestigious race, this year held at Chemung Speedrome (NY) for the first time, and additionally resulted in his seventh career RoC Modified title. Much similar to the way circumstances have typically gone in 2015 and even compared to the 2012 running, there was an issue that was audible in victory lane as well as some adversity to overcome in order to complete the job.
“Sometime around four or five to go we got a flat right rear, a slow leak, but enough that it got worse with each lap,” Hirschman told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “I was kidding that my stomach was in my throat the last couple because I knew it was getting worse. I knew something was up, and it kind of reminds me of the first RoC we won at Oswego when we had a bad alternator and we were running out of volts to keep the motor running. I couldn’t even speak right after the race because I knew with a caution or anything we were done. That would have been such a heartbreaker.”
Hirschman used one of his traditional strategies after a bad draw in a heat race loaded with talent. However, hanging around the rear of the field during the early stages nearly backfired at one point.
“The first few laps were meaningless in terms of achieving our goals today so we kind of took a conservative approach,” Hirschman explained. “Still actually had a close call and got turned around down there (in turn four). That wasn’t part of the plan, but it was no big deal. We continued on from that and we were able to advance to see what kind of car we had and try to set ourselves up for the finish.”
Shortly after the yellow that was brought out due to his spin, Hirschman began his first march through the field. On lap 105, he took the top spot from Chemung’s weekly track champion Jimmy Zacharias.
The next caution that flew on lap 119 initiated the opportunity for a number of Modifieds to take on fresh tires. Hirschman elected to stay out but came in a couple circuits later, meaning he would restart behind some cars that were sure to be contenders for the win.
Nevertheless, Hirschman made it through to second and passed leader Daren Scherer, who was on ailing tires, with less than 50 laps to go.
Hirschman’s closest competitor during the closing laps was Zane Zeiner, the 2011 Race of Champions event winner, invading for his first RoC start in more than two years.
“I could see Matt getting tight and I was really going to attempt a bonzai move, but it just wasn’t quite there,” the Bath, Pennsylvania second-place finisher recapped. “If I could have gotten just a little bit closer I would have attempted something down in three and four like I passed Chuck (Hossfeld). All in all, I was very happy with the car. I felt like we made a lot of progress, and this car is going to be good down the road.”
Zeiner additionally mentioned the great feeling to see some old friends after mostly concentrating on major events in Pennsylvania and New Jersey over the last couple years, and indicated a favorable chance at returning to the RoC Tour for 2016.
Behind Zeiner, defending series champion and Race of Champions winner Chuck Hossfeld battled with another title hopeful Andy Jankowiak to finish in the third and fourth positions respectively.
Perhaps the most intriguing run to watch late in the going was from early season point leader Mike Leaty. The L2 Autosport team decided on using a differing strategy from the leaders after starting the feature from the rear. They took one new tire early and then pitted several laps after the leaders for the remaining three fresh rubber to make their final climb to the front.
However, fifth was as far as they were able to get.
“In hindsight 20/20 I should have pitted when Matt did,” Leaty analyzed. “He got me up to second and I could have come into the pits with
Matt, come out of the pits behind him, and then raced him for the win. But I thought I could get 30 or 40 more laps on their tires and then pit on my own, have the tire advantage, and we could probably drive back by everybody with it being a short field. It didn’t really work out.
“With being 15 to 20 laps to go when I caught the top four they didn’t want to give me a lane and I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t either. It is what it is. We got out of here with a top five. We started dead last and worked our way up to the lead at one point so it was a good race. I just wish we would have had a little more time. Maybe 20 or 30 more laps I think we would have been right there racing for the win.”
For Hirschman, it was certainly a different climb to the top compared to some of his other championship seasons where they were usually the dominant force or car to beat week in and week out.
“If it makes any sense it’s probably the least enjoyable but the most rewarding of all the RoC championships we’ve won,” Hirschman admitted. “There were other years where we were winning more and just having more fun, and this year with the flat tires and all the things that kept happening it really took a lot of the fun out of it.
“We didn’t give up, we kept working, and we finished strong. We won the two biggest races of the year and the championship in the last two weeks of the season. It was a trying year, but that’s just how racing goes sometimes. I’ve been in it long enough and been a part of it my whole life with my dad’s racing to know that you’re going to have years that things go better than others.”
The 2015 RoC championship team now heads into some “Big Money” shows that they are best known for with momentum on their side, a characteristic that many teams will have to work hard at to outrun.
“We’re peaking at the right time and we have all big races to go yet. It’s coming together at the right time and it’s a big momentum boost starting with Lancaster, the 200, and the championship. Hopefully we can continue.”
For an on-demand replay of Sunday’s Trackside Now coverage from Chemung, click here: http://speed51.com/trackside-now-race-of-champions-200-at-chemung-speedrome/
-By Aaron Creed, Speed51.com Central NY & PA Editor – Twitter: @Aaron_Creed
-Photo Credit: Mojo Photos